[Cross-published at The Huffington Post]
"So, are you on strike?"
"But you're a writer?
"Not that kind of writer. Not right now."
"Then what do you write?"
"Articles, columns, essays. You know, for newspapers and magazines. I'm also working on a book."
"Well, at least you don't have to picket."
* * *
Before I moved to Los Angeles, it was nearly fantastical to be a writer for reasons that went way beyond in-the-moment job satisfaction. I lived in New York City. I worked for a newspaper but also freelanced for magazines and book publishers. I reviewed and reported on operas, records, and books. ("That's work?" my friends in other professions would ask with jealous glints in their eyes. "That's what we wait for the weekends to enjoy!") As a writer, I might every now and then eat at a popular, brand-new restaurant or visit an unusual city. I wrote essays and sometimes just had to reminisce. Other times, I spoke to unusually influential people: a musician, famous businessperson, TV personality. There were truly smoky book parties to attend -- illuminated by the presence of seasoned authors dancing in lockstep through clouds of unedited wit. And when I was working-working, I stayed home, comfortably, or hit local cafes, while my nine-to-nine friends claimed to feel trapped inside the institutions that had claimed their lives. To be a writer in New York City--one that left the house -- meant seeing people actively reading your articles on the street. Living the life you often wrote about. Being a beloved cog in the urban wheel. You were a vital part of society, and even if you didn't rake it in, you garnered some respect, if only for trying your hand at the profession.
As an Angeleno, the rules changed. Here, Writers with a capital W didn't just speak to top showrunners on the phone for 20 minutes; they had lunch with them at Katsuya. Three times a week. Because they worked with them. Here, Writers got re-si-duals (I often had to say the word slowly so as to stave off a complete meltdown about the fact that jokes people had written in the past continued to pay for their organic lattes well into retirement). Here, Writers drove fancy cars, owned (even small) homes, and could afford to have children! They had kick-ass health insurance. A strong union. Retirement plans. Acupuncturists! Lawyers on retainer. Abs!
One time, after just having arrived in L.A., I even saw a Writer dating one of the world's biggest female movie stars; he wooed her with his words, a local friend said. (The words she had heard via a surround sound theater -- L.Ron forbid she would have had to find them in a publication that she would have had to read.) In L.A., being a Writer meant something else entirely -- studio development deals to just, well, "develop"; weeks in the Maldives; enough money to actually buy the eco-friendly hybrid cars and organic produce. That oh-so-coveted status that connotes respect, at least in LaLaLand.
The tales of woe Hollywood Writers told -- "Moron actors make so much more than us; we might have to go on strike; my Mac just broke and now I have to buy a new version of Final Draft; they didn't even buy my script for low-six figures, and now they're not going to make it until 2010..." -- just didn't seem to elicit very much sympathy in me. Of course, screenwriters existed in New York, too, but they were a lot harder to find and seemed to co-exist more naturally with other scribes. Here, print writers (at least the majority of us) were definitely second-class citizens.
Of course, I still told people that I was writer when they invariably asked my profession at social gatherings, and sure, I still felt -- and feel -- lucky to be able to make a living the way I do. But when it was clear I wasn't a Writer (as in I hadn't created The Sopranos or even just the shmucky Comedy Central show of the month), they usually didn't care to speak about very much. Hell, neither did I; I just spotted J.J. Abrams on the other side of the room, too.
Yes, there are novelists here as well as the occasional literary celebrity. But c'mon -- we all know most of 'em are just in town to lunch with the agents that had arranged for the optioning of their work. Or else they wrote Bruce Wagner-like novels and delved into print work to be oddballs. Alterna-scribes. Or else they worked for local media, including one of the best newspapers in the country. In any case, they didn't quite blend the same way.
But for just a few months in Los Angeles, that wasn't the case. There was a Strike! The Writers -- and yes, even those without all those fancy deals and high wages, even those truckloads of unemployed Writers who were still clamoring for a chance -- didn't have anything to do. They flooded my favorite café. Asked what I was working on. Seemed to care. "Oh, you get to visit faraway places and then write about them for travel magazines? You get paid to read your favorite authors? To dig into a true-life news story that has gotten you so worked up, you want to get to the bottom of the mystery? To pen an essay about your opinions?" There were even moments of genuine jealousy. That is, before the Writers learned what a top newspaper or even a national magazine paid for an article. You could tell them you got $700 for a newspaper feature or ten times that for something in a men's monthly -- it didn't matter. "You mean you don't get something for those stories every year?" they'd ask. "You mean that's just a one-time payment?" That's when I realized: These men and women didn't need a travel magazine assignment to see Italy. They probably rented villas there at the drop of a hat.
It has to be chronicled for posterity: Most Los Angeles writers who haven't yet joined the WGA and continue to peck away at careers in writing for publication -- don't degrade us by calling us journalists; here "journalist" is almost as bad as "paparazzo"; it doesn't mean you're smart, sadly -- had their moment in the sun during the Writer's strike. We supported our Final Draft-clicking brethren. Some of us even picketed with them. But there never was a time like these last few months for non-screenwriters in Los Angeles. Hell, I even got a table at Katsuya on a Saturday night. At 8 p.m.
Am I sad that some of my friends and screenwriting colleagues are about to go back to work? Not at all. Some weren't working to begin with, and some weren't making all those millions even if they have jobs. I kid about all the screenwriters rocking the high life. I know it's just a minority. Of course, I'm not sure that their New Deal is as awesome as they say it is -- is it me or will ABC just cycle old Lost episodes off the web before the 17-day cutoff, leaving plenty of Writers without pay for some of the most heavily watched Web streams? But I am not sad. I also mess around with scripts. Who knows: One day, maybe someone will option one of my articles or books, and then I'll adapt the thing and become David Duchovny in Californication. Maybe I'll even get wealthy enough to have a drug problem. Or become friends with an actor who continues conversations even though he just got a role on a new network sitcom.
Let's just not forget what a glorious time it was to be a non-WGA writer in sunny Hollywood, throughout the 2007-2008 winter. I hear that a "journalist" -- you know, one of those guys who wrote some book probing the cultural history of a culinary condiment -- even got a date with a real movie star. Ok, she's just on a cable series. But still. That's progress.
* * *
P.S. Today, I received an extremely kind letter from a top screenwriter, regarding an article he wrote. But don't get too excited -- the guy is also a fantastic playwright from neither New York or L.A., and never let any of this nonsense go to his head.